From Iron Man to Spider-Man — Ranking the Romances of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
There's one narrative element that Marvel's MCU is slowly getting better at: romance. We break down the best and the worst.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, including Spider-Man: Far From Home.
What would the Marvel Cinematic Universe be without its share of romance? Lesser, that’s for sure. While the cinematic universe hasn’t always been so great at telling love stories (probably because it hasn’t always been so great about prioritizing fully-fleshed-out female characters… not that you can’t have a love story between two men #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend), it has traded in mostly half-hearted “obligatory” romances for meatier stuff in recent flicks.
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The MCU’s latest film, Spider-Man: Far From Home, has a pretty adorable romance as one of its central plots. Where does the Peter/MJ dynamic rank on our list of best MCU romances? Let’s look at the canon romances—sorry, Stucky, you know you’d top this list, if it were based on subtext and fandom alone—of the MCU, from worst to best.
14. Stephen & Christine (Doctor Strange)
Congratulations, Thor and Jane! You are no longer the worst romance in the MCU. That dubious honor goes to Doctor Strange‘s Stephen and Christine. Stephen’s main character trait is self-involved arrogance, so you can imagine how hard it is to ship him with anyone, let alone the long-suffering Rachel McAdams, who seems doomed to a career of thankless roles as love interests who ground the needy men in their lives with an infinite degree of understanding.
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This trope is on full display in Christine’s relationship with Stephen in Doctor Strange, which peaks in a scene in which Stephen mansplains his own surgery to the highly-qualified emergency surgeon Christine. Though Marvel claims this relationship was changed from a romance to a subversion of that trope, making them ex-lovers instead, that doesn’t exactly come across on screen. Christine is still completely defined as a love interest for Stephen and by her endless ability to provide his character emotional support. Rachel McAdams deserves far, far better. So do the fans. It seems that Marvel and Ms. McAdams agree, as she won’t return for Doctor Strange 2.
13. Thor & Jane Foster (Thor)
Guys, can we all admit that the Thor/Jane romance is so boring? It’s so boring that, when it was announced that Natalie Portman wouldn’t be returning for Thor: Ragnarok, most people’s reaction was basically: ¯_(ツ)_/¯. This is the actress who had been in both previous Thorfilms as the main romantic interest and female lead. That’s not good.
This ambivalence is not Portman’s fault. This actress has some hard, thinly-veiled damsel-in-distress tropes to deal with in Jane’s character. This is especially true in The Dark World, where Jane passes out during her escape from Asgard with Thor and Loki. That is how not-invested in this plot Jane is. Just when things start get interesting, she opts out.
Thor and Jane’s relationship is not an organic one based on on-screen chemistry or artful writing. It is the most blatant example of Because They’re A Thing in the Comics, but not even the giddy-making degree to which Darcy Lewis ships Thor and Jane can make us care about this chemistry-less romance.
12. Steve Rogers & Sharon Carter (Civil War)
While critical consensus deemed this movie a success, in the weeks following its release, there were several great think pieces about the inorganic romance between Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter as one of the film’s only glaring weaknesses. It’s not hard to understand why: the relationship is shoehorned into a movie that already has enough to do without the added pressure of having to awkwardly reinforce the heteronormativity of the MCU.
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Sharon has more interesting things to do as a character than kiss Steve. She is grieving her aunt, following her moral compass in helping Steve find Bucky, and trying to juggle all of this while also working as a CIA agent. It sucks that her role is instead forced into a romantic relationship when it doesn’t have to be, when there are so many other rich relationship possibilities.
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Best case interpretation of their kiss in Civil War: this is a boring pairing that nobody asked for and Marvel spent almost no time developing. It’s an obligatory nod to the romantic history of their comic book counterparts. Worst case interpreation of their kiss: this is MCU’s homophobic reaction to Stucky shippers in a movie where Steve chooses Bucky above all else. Either way, it’s a disappointing storytelling decision.
11. Bruce Banner & Natasha Romanov (Age of Ultron)
The romance between Bruce and Natasha explored in Age of Ultronhas similar problems to the romance between Steve and Sharon in Civil War.It feels like it was hatched not out of a natural, well-developed chemistry between these two characters, but rather the idea that someone in this movie should have a romance.
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The romance between Bruce and Natasha works a bit better than the one between Steve and Sharon, however, because we have seen much more interaction between their two characters. Natasha is the one who S.H.I.E.L.D. sends to retrieve Bruce in The Avengers,and the two have some interesting conversations about the responsibility of having the skillset (or brute strength, in Bruce’s case) to murder someone.
In another, less busy movie, perhaps this romance could have worked, but, as part of an already-overstuffed Age of Ultron,it felt like an unnecessary distraction. Props to Infinity War for not trying to force this one down our throats, but still acknowledging that it, you know, happened, with a sweet, but awkward reintroduction of these two characters after Bruce’s time away.
10. Vision & Wanda (Civil War)
Vision and Wanda’s romance happens mostly off the screen so there’s only so much to care about here. Their love is one of the chief snags of Infinity War in that it keeps Wanda from destroying the Mind Stone much earlier in the movie. (To be fair, Steve also had something to say on the matter and, even if Wanda and Vision were not romantically involved at this point, Wanda would probably still have qualms about killing her friend.)
That being said, these two get a nice little conversation in Infinity War about making promises to other people versus making promises to each other. The age difference between Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany makes this a hard sell for me, but Infinity War does a good enough job making me care about Wanda’s decision in this movie because of her relationship with Vision if not about the actual relationship.
These two are getting their very own Disney+ series called WandaVision set at least partially in the 1950s, so the dynamic has the future potential to move up (or down, I suppose) the list.
9. Peter & Liz (Spider-Man: Homecoming)
While it’s obvious that Peter and Mary Jane are actually endgame here, Liz Allan is the person Peter has a massive crush on in his MCU standalone debut.
Unlike most of the other romances on this list, the high school flirtation between Peter and Liz is played with relatively low stakes—though it does tie into an extremely high-stakes situation, that is really more about Peter’s role as a superhero, rather than as a high school boy trying to go with the girl he likes to the homecoming dance. This gives the relationship more room to breathe, and makes it feel more realistic. This isn’t a life-or-death, star-crossed love situation; it’s just two sweet, well-intentioned high school kids who like each other.
By the end of the film, it’s obvious things are not going to work out between these two, but Spider-Man: Homecoming does something incredibly smart by treating Liz like a real, complex person, and giving her a moment of angry empathy during their, for want of a better descriptor, break-up scene. Liz doesn’t let Peter off the hook for how he treated her, but she also recognizes that he is someone with a lot of difficult issues to work through. It’s a moment of complex humanity that MCU doesn’t usually award its female love interests.
8. Bruce Banner & Betty Ross (The Incredible Hulk)
It says a lot about the competitiveness of this list that Bruce and Betty managed to make it this high. The Incredible Hulk was a pretty forgettable movie (although not, actually, a terrible one) — so much so that most people generally forget it’s technically a part of the MCU (something Marvel actively encourages).
That being said, The Incredible Hulkis arguably the standalone installment that most integrates a love story into its central plot, with Bruce and Betty going on the run together from General Ross, Betty’s father (who, yes, also showed up in Captain America: Civil Warand Infinity War). Rather than most of the other MCU romances, Betty and Bruce don’t meet in The Incredible Hulk,but rather catch back up after a period of Hulk-induced estrangement. This is a good narrative cheat for crafting a convincing romance between two characters when you don’t have a lot of time.
Cons of this romance include the fact that Liv Tyler’s Betty doesn’t really get to be a character outside of her identity as Bruce’s love interest. It’s also kind of awkward that Bruce has mentioned nothing of Betty in his later, Avengers-based appearances as Mark Ruffalo.
7. Scott Lang & Hope van Dyne (Ant-Man)
Scott and Hope have a relatively traditional action film romance. Hope kind of hates Scott. Banter, banter, banter. She eventually sees through his tough guy persona to the heart of gold underneath. They eventually admit that they kinda, sorta have a thing for each other. It’s totally watchable, especially because Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly are charming actors.
It helps that Hope has a lot going on character-wise. Part of the reason she first dislikes Scott is because she justifiably sees him filling a role that she is arguably much more qualified to fill. She is a female MCU character who knows her worth (Peggy Carter would be proud). And Scott is man enough to admit that Hope is a terrifying badass. Even before they fall for each other, he respects her. There’s not enough of that in movie romance.
6. Ned Leeds & Betty Brant (Spider-Man: Far From Home)
If there’s ever been a less toxic depiction of the teenage fling than Ned Leeds and Betty Brant’s European romance in Spider-Man: Far From Home, then we don’t know about it. From the blossoming of the pair’s relationship on the plane to Venice to Ned and Betty’s commitment to one another during both tourist activities and life-or-death situations to their amiable separation before their return home, teen love has rarely been so sweetly—or hilariously—told, especially not in a superhero flick. We didn’t know we needed a light, low-stakes romance in the middle of MCU’s epic narratives until we saw it. So… thanks, Ned and Betty. We’ll always have Prague. <3
5. Peter Quill & Gamora (Guardians of the Galaxy)
Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Peter and Gamora get some serious romantic development in Infinity War. The two kiss and exchange “I love yous” during the film. Sure, the latter is when Gamora is trying to convince Peter to kill her so she won’t fall into Thanos’ hands, but not all romantic moments are perfect. (Just kidding. I love these kinds of high-stakes love confessions.)
The moment that really sold me on these two in Infinity War? When Peter actually pulls the trigger to kill Gamora. Bubbles instead of lethal force end up coming out, but that doesn’t negate the fact that Peter subverted the I Can’t Kill the One I Love trope and acquiesced to Gamora’s big ask. I have never respected Peter more—or shipped these two more—than when he respected Gamora’s wishes.
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That being said, these two are in a pretty tragic place right now. Gamora died in Infinity War and stayed dead in Endgame. There may be an alternate timeline version of Gamora out there who knows very little about Peter Quill, but it’s still pretty goddamn depressing to know that the Gamora we (and Peter) have grown to love is gone forever.
4. Peter & MJ (Spider-Man: Far From Home)
In a narrative universe with ever-increasing stakes when it comes to its superhero-ing, it’s pretty refreshing to see a romantic relationship that is so incredibly high school. The stakes in the Peter/MJ relationship in Far From Home are relatively low, especially compared to what Peter has just gone through in Avengers: Endgame. Peter just wants to give MJ some Venetian jewelry and tell her that he likes her. Objectively, what’s the worst that could happen?
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Of course, if you remember what high school was like (or what it is like to ever be vulnerable with your affections), you know that, no matter how objectively low-stakes a scenario like this one may be, it can feel like the world is literally going to end if the person you like rejects you. Of course, Peter has nothing to worry about. He’s adorable and MJ totally likes him, of course. She even manages to guess his secret, which sets this relationship up for some serious growth in the next Spider-Man installment. Frankly, we can’t wait to see what happens with these two next.
3. T’Challa & Nakia (Black Panther)
The romance between T’Challa and Nakia is gloriously subtle and organic in Black Panther. While these two were once together, they broke up sometime before the start of the film—not because they don’t love one another, but because Nakia couldn’t stand to stay in an isolationist Wakanda when there are people all over the world who need her help. It’s a very mature, not at all contrived reason to keep these two apart.
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Given that much of this movie takes place in the direct aftermath of T’Chaka’s death and T’Challa is busy both grieving his father and trying to hold onto the throne, there isn’t much time for the rekindling of romance. Instead, we get a chance to see the depth of love and respect these two have for one another. It is Nakia, along with Erik, who convince T’Challa to change Wakanda’s historic policy of staying largely uninvolved from the rest of the world—a mark of how much T’Challa respects his friend and ex-lover.
T’Challa obviously adores Nakia (who wouldn’t?) and it will be exciting to see how Nakia’s character continues to contribute to the rich world of Black Panther and of the larger MCU—even if she was sadly missing from the events of Endgame.
2. Steve Rogers & Peggy Carter (The First Avenger)
This is another MCU romance that gives us a well-realized female character who has ambitions and character traits outside of her romance with Steve Rogers. It helps that Peggy Carter has appeared in her own TV show (R.I.P., Agent Carter) and one-shot before that, in addition to appearing in both Captain America: The First Avengerand Captain America: Civil War(she also appears as a hallucination-dream in Age of Ultron).
From the very beginning, the dynamic between Peggy and Steve was something special because Peggy was better realized than most other female characters in the MCU put together. Peggy knew and cared for pre-serum Steve as much as she did for post-serum Steve and, even after they were separated, kept his legacy alive (don’t tell me you didn’t tear up while Steve was watching her Smithsonian interview).
After he woke up in the 21st century, Steve visited an ailing Peggy in her nursing home presumably on a fairly regular basis. If that’s not love, then I don’t know what is. (Well, love is literally starting a war to save your best friend, but I’m not here to make Steve—or you—choose.)
In the final moments of Endgame, we see Steve go back to get that dance with Peggy, seemingly giving them the potential life together they lost when Steve crashed into the ice—we’re just going to avoid thinking to much about the plot and character implications of this choice, or what it means for Agent Carter continuity.
1. Tony Stark & Pepper Potts (Iron Man)
The MCU banter-filled romance that started them all. Unlike all of the other choices on the list, the relationship between Tony and Pepper has not only been well-developed, but sustained over the course of three Iron Man films, with additional scenes in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Infinity War, and Endgame.
It’s particularly interesting to think about the importance of this relationship within the context of Civil War.It’s hard to imagine Tony going off the deep-end quite so quickly or thoroughly if things with Pepper were good. Let’s not forget that he starts his Civil Warcharacter arc not just with the reminder of his parents’ untimely death or his interaction with a grieving mother, but also with the notable absence of Pepper.
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From the very first Iron Manfilm, Pepper has been the person Tony can and does most rely on. It’s what gave that first film so much heart (the film really makes a point of driving that heart metaphor home). The first Iron Manfilm is given a lot of credit for its humor, action, and tone, but I don’t think enough people pay attention to how good the romance—which is to say, interpersonal drama—is.
When Tony Stark is at his most obnoxious and unlikeable, Pepper is the audience surrogate character, reminding us to give this man time and patience to become the hero he can be. People like to speculate if the MCU would be where it is today if Iron Manhad sucked/flopped. I think a poorly-realized romance might have served that purpose. So thanks for the MCU, Tony and Pepper.
We get a bittersweet, but arguably satisfying conclusion to this romance in Endgame, which sees Pepper and Tony getting married during the five-year time jump and having an adorable, clever daughter Morgan who loves her father 3000. Pepper is the one who says goodbye to Tony for us, letting him know that everyone is going to be OK and he can rest now in a moment that nails both of these characters so perfectly.
In the denoument, Pepper leads us all in letting go of Tony Stark, the man we always knew had the best of hearts.
The complete schedule of upcoming Marvel movies can be found here.
Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.